When Obama Gives Orders to Israel

It is not an op-ed by a former diplomat that strained Washington’s ties with Israel, but the U.S. president’s sharp policy shift on settlements.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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A general view of the West Bank settlement of Psagot near Ramallah. Jan. 27, 2014
A general view of the West Bank settlement of Psagot near Ramallah. Jan. 27, 2014Credit: AP
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

So what’s all the fuss about the article in the Wall Street Journal by Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren? Barack Obama upon his inauguration as U.S. president in January 2009 decided to change the rules that governed the relations between the United States and Israel during previous Democratic and Republican administrations. This is well known in Washington and in Jerusalem, and even in Tel Aviv. He decided on a “new beginning” between the United States and Israel. It was part of his speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009. “I have come here,” he said, “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” Toward the end of that speech there was the announcement of a new beginning with Israel as well. To his audience at Cairo University he said: “The United States does not recognize the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

The “new beginning” with the Muslim world did not work out so well in the intervening years, nor did the “new beginning” with Israel. Whereas Obama had just about zero leverage with the Muslim world to bring about the change he sought, he thought that he would have plenty of leverage to bring about the change he desired on Israel, especially with the help of the opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria had been built during the tenure of successive Israeli governments led by Likud and Labor, and were the source of differences of opinion between Washington and Jerusalem over the years. However, successive American presidents had been careful to discuss U.S. reservations about these settlements in private meetings with their Israeli counterparts, but had not taken them public. It was consistent with the tenor of the special relationship existing between the two countries not to shout these differences from the rooftops. Obama decided to change that. First in Cairo, and thereafter on numerous occasions, his strong objections to the settlements were made public, and became part and parcel of the public discourse between Washington and Jerusalem. It was a major change in the tenor and the climate of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Moreover, Obama’s objections were not limited to settlements in Judea and Samaria, but were also directed at any construction in Jerusalem beyond the armistice lines concluded with Jordan in 1949, which he referred to as the 1967 borders. Not only was such construction criticized, but the approval granted at various stages in the planning process by the relevant Israeli bureaucracy regularly brought on a shower of condemnation from Washington. In a number of statements Obama made it clear that he considered the 1967 lines with minor swaps to be the eventual border of the Palestinian state, and his public criticism of construction beyond these lines was consistent with that position.

U.S. President Barak Obama during a visit to the Conservative Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, in May.Credit: AP

Although previous U.S. administrations had privately voiced objections to Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria, U.S. policy had not in the past regarded the 1967 lines as Israel’s future eastern border. Until Obama’s entry into the White House U.S. policy on this subject was based on UN resolution 242 which did not refer to an Israeli withdrawal to these lines.

Contributing to Israel’s security is part of Obama’s Israeli policy, presumably based on the assumption that an Israel that felt secure would be more amenable to accepting the risk of a Palestinian state established on the 1967 lines. U.S. contributions to the acquisition of “Iron Dome” batteries to intercept rockets coming from the Gaza Strip were meant to enhance such a sense of security.

Obama’s statement in Cairo that “it is time for these settlements to stop” was phrased in effect as an order to the Netanyahu government. Such orders from Washington had not been part of the U.S.-Israeli public discourse in the past, and were to become the basis for the strained relations between Obama and Netanyahu in the coming years of the Obama administration. It was not a policy supported by the majority of the U.S. Congress and may not be a policy adopted by future American administrations.

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